Racing fans didn’t get the Triple Crown winner they’ve been waiting for since 1978, the year Affirmed swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes (all gr. I). The tough-as-nails colt was the third Triple Crown winner of the 1970s, following Secretariat in 1973 and Seattle Slew in 1977.
What fans got this year were three incredible horse races that ended with three very accomplished and deserving winners, punctuated by the history-making performance of Rags to Riches, the first filly winner of the Belmont since Tanya in 1905. Her heart-pounding stretch run against Preakness winner Curlin will go down as one of the greatest performances in the 139-year history of the Belmont.
Street Sense made history, too, with his victory in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. With that win, he became the first Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner to capture the Derby, ending the 23-year-old “juvenile jinx.”
Street Sense was denied his chance at the Triple Crown when Curlin nipped him by a head at the wire in the Preakness. That race provided fans at Pimlico with one of the most exciting Preakness finishes in years and gave Curlin a measure of revenge for what was then his only career loss, which he suffered when third to Street Sense in the Derby.
When owner James Tafel opted not to run Street Sense in the Belmont, he took more than a little heat from the media and general public for diminishing the importance of America’s oldest and, at 1½ miles, longest classic. Turns out that by avoiding a rematch with Curlin, Tafel and trainer Carl Nafzger helped convince trainer Todd Pletcher and owners Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith to test Rags to Riches against colts in the Belmont.
What the public wants to see now is a contest matching all three of the Triple Crown race winners. Street Sense is being pointed for the Travers Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga Aug. 25. There is no definite plan known for Curlin, who races for Stonestreet Stables, Padua Stables, George Bolton, and Midnight Cry Stables. Pletcher, with Tabor and Smith’s blessings, said he very well might run Rags to Riches against colts again.
Wherever and whenever Street Sense, Curlin, and Rags to Riches show up in the same starting gate, will be the race of the year. Let’s hope for racing’s benefit that it happens.
TRIPLE CROWN ON THE DECLINE?
Business was down from last year at all three Triple Crown tracks. Belmont Park attracted just 46,870 fans for the Belmont Stakes, an anemic figure when you consider that Santa Anita Park drew a crowd of 56,810 for the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I).
This is the second consecutive year the Triple Crown has gone without a corporate sponsor, following the decision by VISA to end its affiliation in 2005. Last year also was the first year telecasts of the three races were split between NBC (Derby and Preakness) and ABC (Belmont) since an entity called Triple Crown Productions was formed in 1985 to promote the series and package it for television networks and sponsors.
Chrysler came on-board as a sponsor in 1986, offering a $5-million payoff to a Triple Crown winner and $1 million to the horse with the best showing in all three races. The latter bonus was dropped by the time VISA became the Triple Crown’s sponsor in 1996.
The Breeders’ Cup, working through the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, has attracted a host of corporate partners for its World Championships. The NTRA has offered to help sell sponsorships on behalf of the Triple Crown, but the Triple Crown host tracks have repeatedly said they don’t need any assistance.
I beg to differ. If racing can’t find a sponsor for its marquee series, it most certainly needs help from someone.